• “…Individuals low on subjective socioeconomic status should have a greater preference for meat, as meat may be substitutable for the status that they lack." (Photolibrary RM/Getty Images)
If you're a proud carnivore, it's pretty hard to eat less meat even if it's for the sake of your health. But why? A new study reasons that we're instinctively driven to eat meat because it's associated with a higher social status.
By
Yasmin Noone

18 Sep 2018 - 1:47 PM  UPDATED 18 Sep 2018 - 3:06 PM

There’s one strange but insightful question that food consumption experts want you to ask yourself next time you’re preparing a dinner party for your carnivore mates: ‘why aren’t I content with just serving them vegetables only?’

The answer may sound obvious – ‘because they like meat’ – but go one step further and consider what your carnivore guests could say about your dinner and hosting skills if you didn’t give them any meat-based dishes.

Dr Zlatevska, a co-author on a new paper about meat and social status from Monash University and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) says all humans are instinctively wired to associate meat eating with socio-economic position. So it’s likely that not serving at least one meat-based dish to carnivore guests could make you feel like a bit of a social failure.

“It’s an implicitly held belief. It’s in our subconscious,” UTS's Dr Zlatevska tells SBS. 

“I’m pretty sure that most of us would say it would be weird if we only had vegetable-based dishes at a dinner party, unless you were vegan or vegetarian or hosting a dinner specifically designed to be vegan or vegetarian.”

The 2018 study found that eating meat is a symbol of power and status. So people who see themselves as having a low socio-economic status prefer meat, and eat more meat, due to this perception. 

“…Individuals low on subjective socioeconomic status should have a greater preference for meat, as meat may be substitutable for the status that they lack,” the research published in Appetite this month reads.

In a recent article published by The Conversation, the author – PhD candidate, Tani Khara – also links eating meat with socioeconomic status in the traditionally vegetarian country of India. Khara explains that as India’s urban population increases and its agricultural society develops into an industrial economy, more people are eating meat and giving up pure vegetarianism. Cultural norms are changing and that is driving meat-eating behaviours, as meat is quickly becoming a status symbol.

“…Individuals low on subjective socioeconomic status should have a greater preference for meat, as meat may be substitutable for the status that they lack."

If meat were a person, would it be an urbanised, white Western male?

Historically, meat has always been associated with men. In evolutionary times and in many hunter-gatherer societies, it’s a male’s responsibility to hunt for food. In the West, it’s often considered to be a ‘man’s job’ to cook a barbecue.

Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2012, tested whether meat and maleness were currently  linked. The US-based study found that meat is still used as a symbol for maleness in most Western cultures today.

“Overall, results indicate that there is a psychological link between maleness and meat,” the study concludes. “…It was also found that women tend to have a lower preference for meat as a means to maintain their gender identity.”

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So what does that say about countries, where eating meat is central to the social culture?

Dr Geetanjali Saluja, a lecturer from the UTS Business School who specialises in food consumption choices, believes that big meat-eating countries could associate meat consumption with male-dominated social status.

“Overall, results indicate that there is a psychological link between maleness and meat."

“If we were to put masculinity and femininity on opposite ends of the spectrum, I would say that most cultures would lie somewhere in the middle,” says Dr Geetanjali Saluja, a lecturer from the UTS Business School who specialises in how culture affects consumption choices. 

“But if a western culture – like the USA or Australia – highly regards masculinity and associates it with social power, it’s likely that meat eating could be greatly valued. Then you have some Asian cultures – like Thailand or the Philippines – where masculinity is not regarded as really important.”

Dr Saluja adds that in cultures that are mostly vegetarian or vegan, eating meat is often associated with your class and education level. So people who eat or serve meat at dinner parties are more likely to be in a higher socioeconomic position than those who don’t.

“I come from India where a lot of people are mostly vegetarian. You do find that in higher socioeconomic classes, there is often more meat consumption. The reason is simply the affordability of meat [and that meat is linked to power]. When you want to reward yourself, you go and eat meat.”

So maybe ask yourself, ‘why am I doing this? Just bringing this question to the top of mind is sure to have an impact.”

Where to from here then? Should we serve piles of vegetable patties to our mates next time they come over for dinner just to prove to them we aren’t trying to appear bigger than our boots?

Dr Zlatevska says no but just try to be aware of intuitive food associations you’re making, next time you’re planning a dinner party menu.

“People aren’t really aware of the labelling that’s associated with meat and status," explains Dr Zlatevska. "So maybe ask yourself, ‘why am I doing this? Just bringing this question to the top of mind is sure to have an impact.”

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